Wireless Fire Alarm Systems Primed for Growth?

Fire/life-safety professionals report rising awareness – and confidence in – wireless fire detection systems.

OMAHA, Neb. – Wireless fire detection systems for homes and businesses are making small but measurable inroads to the nation’s public safety industry, Omaha World-Herald reports.

Sales of wireless fire detection systems are now accounting for about 1% to 2% of new installations and retrofits, Bob Sorensen, president of Omaha, Neb.-based fire/life-safety gear and systems supplier FireGuard, told the newspaper. 

“Wireless systems are now to the point that people have complete confidence in them,” said Sorensen, who serves as the Midwest region director of the National Association of Fire Equipment Distributors. “It appears to be the technology of the future.”

Wireless fire systems use an array of sensors, antennas and alarms that most commonly receive and send low power radio signals to one another in much the same way cellphones communicate with Wi-Fi networks. Other wireless technologies rely on optic or sonic signals to detect smoke and heat and trigger alarms.

Sorensen said remodeling and retrofitting are big markets for wireless systems. That’s because many buildings – college dorms, hotels, commercial offices – prefer to not shut down while crews drill through concrete, rip out drywall and replace miles of wire left over from old hard-wired systems as dozens or hundreds of people are still using the building.

“In the next four or five years, you are going to see a lot more growth in wireless for that very reason,” Sorensen told the newspaper.

For the alarm business, many of the world’s major engineering and manufacturing companies are involved, such as Tyco, Honeywell and Siemens, who are also among the largest manufacturers of traditional systems.

The cost of wireless systems is comparable to wired ones, Sorensen said, as far as the gear goes. When it comes to installation, it can be a world of difference.

Sunrise, Fla.-based CWSI, a provider of wireless fire systems, recently retrofitted a high-rise hotel in Washington, D.C., according to Omaha World-Herald. The company’s case study on the project says the whole fire system was upgraded to wireless in about a month, with none of the disruption of business that would have come with taking down walls and replacing wires.

RELATED: Tyco Broadens Wireless Fire Product Offering With CWSI Deal

Transitioning to wireless can take some lobbying. The CWSI case required meetings with 47 different building, safety and fire regulators. But a permit to proceed was quickly granted after the system was demonstrated, the company’s case study says.

Nebraska State Fire Marshal spokesman Ray Nance told the Omaha World-Herald the codes and standards governing the refitting or new installation of fire systems in commercial and high-rise buildings vary based on the occupancy of the structure. All such systems must comply with the 2002 Edition of the NFPA’s National Fire Alarm Code, which lays out the technical requirements for both traditional and wireless fire detection.

Tim McCaw, spokesman for the Omaha Fire Department, told the Omaha World-Herald the city’s residential building code does not allow for wireless systems to be installed in new construction.

“However, it has been accepted in certain existing occupancies, where there is not a remodel being conducted, but the owner would want to improve the smoke detection in their home without the disruption of tearing out drywall,” McCaw said.

Early wireless products lacked both performance features and industry approvals, which restricted their use for mandated fire alarm installations until the mid-1980s, according to the Int’l Municipal Signal Association (IMSA), a trade group for public safety professionals.

In 1987, Underwriters Laboratories wrote the first standards for wireless fire control units and followed up shortly after with standards for smoke detectors and other components. IMSA now recommends that permitting authorities “have no reservations” about giving the go-ahead for wireless systems that meet manufacturing and reliability guidelines.

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